Stepping Out and Moving Forward

Barefootin’: Life Lessons on the Road to Freedom.
By Unita Blackwell (with JoAnne Prichard Morris)
New York: Crown Publishers, 2006, 258 pp., $19.95 paperback

When We Were Colored: A Mother’s Story
By Eva Rutland
Sacramento, CA: IWP Publishers, 2007, 152 pp., $12.95 paperback

Invisible Activists: Women of the Louisiana NAACP, 1915-1945
By Lee Sartain
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007, 212 pp., $36.50, hardcover

Reviewed by Margo Culley

I like to think that reading the obituaries is part of my scholarly interest in personal narrative, rather than an age-specific indulgence. In recent months, we have witnessed the accumulating losses of those connected in important ways to the civil rights movement: Vernon Carter at 88, the minister whose vigil protesting school segregation in Boston lasted 114 days; Irene Morgan Kirkaldy at 90, one of the original Freedom Riders of 1947; Carolyn Goodman at 91, the mother of Andrew Goodman, still an activist at age 83, when she was arrested for protesting the killing of Amadu Diallo in New York City; Reginald Hawkins at 83, the “father of the Charlotte [North Carolina] civil rights movement”; and Oliver Hill at 100, the attorney whose lawsuits against segregated schools in Virginia became the basis of Brown vs. Board of Education. Their names are legion.

Keenly aware of the passing of this leading-edge generation of activists, I treasure these three very different accounts of those who lived the struggle. Unita Blackwell’s Barefootin’ is an exuberant retrospective of dangerous times. When Bob Moses and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, the group was looking for grassroots leaders. “Overnight I went from field-hand to full-time freedom fighter,” Blackwell reports. She takes her title, “Barefootin’,” from a song, and defines it as, “Dancing through your troubles. Dancing away the blues. Dancing with hope for the future . . . stepping out and moving forward.” Her affirmative energy takes her from her birth in a sharecropper’s shack in the Delta to her eventual position as a “citizen of the world.”

While she finds her journey astonishing, she does not minimize the hardships of life in the segregated South. She feels “secure and strong and free-spirited with my kinfolks,” but their poverty is without poetry: living in two rooms plus a lean-to kitchen and porch, twelve to fourteen people sleeping in those rooms, water hauled in buckets, light provided by coal-oil lamps. In the year before his death, she hosts Robert Kennedy on his visit to the Mississippi Delta: “He was thinking he was in some other country. He was shocked and hurt by the scene. ... We went from house to house and tears welled up in Bobby Kennedy’s eyes.” Blackwell remembers starting work in the cotton fields at age six. She explains the real-life meaning of “separate but equal”:

[T]he power of white people was everywhere. They owned our house; they ran our school; they employed us. They paid us what they wanted to, when they wanted to, and so they controlled us in many other ways.

In 1963, she says, only three percent of blacks were registered to vote in Mississippi.

She makes the violence of racial hatred palpable. A week after three civil rights workers go missing in Neshoba County, as she faces down white men in trucks with hunting rifles, she thinks of the deaths of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers. She knows that the men she faces are “so consumed with hatred for me that one of them might actually kill me just to keep me from registering to vote.” In a searing passage describing a march for voter registration at the state capital, Blackwell describes being held in livestock pens with hundreds of others for eleven days: sleeping on bare concrete, and enduring rape-like strip searches and spray from hoses with disinfectant. When one woman resists,

They came in and beat that woman. They closed in on her and held her down, and they spread her legs open wide and beat her between the legs. They just beat her and they beat her and they beat her. Just beat her, savagely. They were calling her an animal, and worse. And I was thinking, the only animals around here are the police.

She compares the experience to the torture inflicted by “our own people” on Iraqi prisoners. She concludes, “I don’t think most people today—younger people especially—have any idea of the price that ordinary black Mississippians have paid.”

Blackwell brings an important gender perspective to her movement days. She tells us that “In Mississippi most of the grassroots organizers—the real movers of the people—were women: Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine in Canton, Victoria Gray in Hattiesburg, among others.” With these women and others, Blackwell joins the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (more than half of the MFDP members were women) and travels to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to challenge the seating of the all-white delegation from Mississippi. An invaluable eye-witness to history, she provides a detailed account of the intense negotiations at the convention.

Long after the “outside agitators” disappeared from Mississippi, this “home-grown agitator” dedicated her life to the fight for justice and equality: among her many accomplishments was the founding of Mississippi Action for Community Organization (MACE) with Fannie Lou Hamer and Amzie Moore, and directing a national housing project for the National Council of Negro Women with Dorothy Height. After joining a delegation of women who traveled with Shirley McLaine to China in 1973, she returned her hometown of Mayersville, where she served twenty years as the first black female mayor in Mississippi.

“The truth is,” Blackwell writes, “the movement gave me a life.” She is open about her failings—her alcoholism and her anger. She stopped drinking in 1971 and today directs her anger toward those who do not vote:

People died for the right to vote. They were thrown out of houses, hunted down, beaten, and jailed for the right to vote. My seven year-old son saw his mother dragged into the street and thrown into a garbage truck to be hauled off to a cattle barn at the state fair grounds. And now Mississippi has nine hundred black elected officials in the state and enough black voters registered to determine the outcome of elections throughout the state. We can elect people who will help us, but only if we vote.

 

Eva Rutland’s When We Were Colored is the slightest of these three books, but in some ways the most intriguing. A collection of personal essays originally printed during the 1950s in women’s magazines such as Redbook, Woman’s Day, and Ladies Home Journal, they were first published in 1964 under the title The Trouble with Being a Mama. Thus, with the exception of the new preface written for this reissue, the book is not retrospective but rather a series of contemporaneous accounts of her family’s experience of what she calls “integration qualms.” At times, Rutland would agree with Henry Louis Gates Jr., who wrote in his better-known memoir Colored People (1996), “For many of the colored people in Piedmont . . .integration was experienced as a loss. The warmth and nurturance of the womblike colored world was slowly and inevitably disappearing.” However, Rutland’s overall purpose was not to indulge such nostalgia, but to educate her readership, who were largely white women. Her pedagogical methods are shrewd. She begins each essay “seeking common ground with white mothers” on issues such as the role of “psychology” in childrearing, helping your children make friends, moving the family to a new neighborhood, difficulties with husbands and fathers, preparing children for school and dating, and joining the PTA.

Once she has built firm connections with her readers, she introduces the “hook” at the end of each essay. She describes the day her brothers, walking home from work, were jumped by a group of “white boys” and cut with switchblades. She ends the essay with a reflection on her brother Sam, a college graduate:

the deep, ugly bruises of a lifetime of blows—the long, long walk on a cold, wintry day to the segregated school, the push to the back of the bus, the climb to the “jim crow” section of the theater to see a special movie, the longing walk past the spacious parks and swimming pools reserved for whites, and job—truck driver, under the supervision of a man whose education could not touch his own. The switchblade marks were only the surface marks—a symbol of “what they think I am.”

Many essays end with similar anecdotes: her daughter’s white schoolmate whose mother won’t let her “come over”; a bright black child with excellent grades placed with the “slow learners” in school; a school dance so fraught with racial and sexual tension that her daughter asks later: “I was so embarrassed . . . Why didn’t they just tell me not to come?” In places she addresses her audience directly: “But I can only tell you that they are human as are your own children.” Of the night she watches Vivian Malone walk past Governor Wallace and enter the University of Alabama under armed guard, she writes, “I cannot help but believe that somewhere, perhaps in the South, a white mother, simply because she was a mother, also watched with tears and pride and fear.”

Rutland returns frequently to the theme of social class: her father was a pharmacist and though she insists they were poor, she admits “we were so much better off than many of our Negro neighbors.” All her mother’s relatives had graduated from college, and her mother consistently had hired help. As a child her world existed “across town,” where friends and members of her extended family lived among the black bourgeoisie of Atlanta. Of her friends, she says “All had cars—comparatively rare in my day—many had fine houses, some had maids, and most attended private schools.” Returning as an adult to these neighborhoods, she writes:

Visiting Atlanta, I would go from one spacious home to another—luncheon and bridge during the day, parties at night. Or we would visit Lincoln Country Club—the Negroes’ private club with its own little golf course. Or we would take the children to visit our alma maters and the other surrounding Negro universities, stroll on the beautiful campuses, listen to a lecture, attend a University Players production, walk through the library. How I wished my children could grow up there, go to school there. How beautiful it seemed—Atlanta with its ermine-trimmed, diamond-studded, velvety cloak of segregation.

Though one may read the above sentence as tinged with irony, Rutland was a proud woman: proud of her race and class; proud of her family, especially her compassionate and tolerant mother; proud of her children; and proud of the “brave young people” who decided “segregation was wrong anywhere—schools, bus stations, lunch counters—and picketed all over the country”—even when they shut down her beloved five-and-ten cent store.

At the same time, though she denies it, she is touched by shame. She writes that the color of her skin is the mark of the slave ship, the stamp of shame upon her heritage. As she explains,

The shame transmits itself to you, and you lower your head when confronted with the symbols of your past—a bandanaed Aunt Jemima, a black-faced comedian with a Negro dialect, a bare-footed boy with his face sunk in watermelon.

And the shame becomes a burden on your heart, a chip on your shoulder, carried with you into the marketplace, the streets, the schools.

In the next breath, though, she insists that because of her family and her segregated schooling, where she learned Negro history and literature (especially the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar), “I think I escaped the shame altogether, and the chip rests lightly on my shoulder.” I’m not so sure. She does have a sense of humor and is able to laugh at herself. But in her urgency to convince her white female readers of the full humanity of Negro mothers and children, pride battles shame. Continually imagining herself through white eyes, she remains shadowed by what “they” think, the double-vision so well described by W.E.B. DuBois in Souls of Black Folk (1903). In the end, pride wins out. Her book closes as she watches the 1963 March on Washington: “But most of all I was proud of the people, black and white, who stood in the sweltering sun, tired and weary, quiet and dignified, saying more eloquently than we ever could, We, the people of the United States.”

 

In contrast to the personal testimony of Blackwell, Lee Sartain, in Invisible Activists, establishes beyond question the fundamental role of African American women in the struggle for racial equality in America in the first half of the twentieth century with assiduous research and documentation. Indeed, he argues, “Black women’s work in the NAACP was the foundation upon which the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was built.”

Sartain, a British Americanist, shows himself to be thoroughly versed in the standard history of the civil rights movement as well as in the revisionist history of the era. Influenced particularly by Charles Payne’s Debating the Civil Rights Movement (2006), he argues that we must look beyond the most visible male leaders to the early roots of the movement. Sartain is also indebted to many writers of African American women’s history: Paula Giddings, Glenda Gilmore, Bernice McNair Barnett, Belinda Robnett, Merline Pitre, Barbara Ransby, and Dorothy Autrey among them.

Though today we may think of the NAACP as a mainstream, middle-class organization with a legalistic, gradualist agenda, Sartain makes clear that joining the organization, particular in the South in the first two-thirds of the century, was indeed a courageous and radical act. Members (both men and women) risked the dangers of lost jobs, physical abuse, and threats to families and property. Nonetheless, women joined in large numbers, and in fact sustained the organization during the difficult Depression and war years.

A few of these women held elected positions within the organization, but most worked tirelessly and unofficially on membership recruitment, fundraising, youth education, and programming. To this work they brought networking and organizational skills honed in churches, schools (many members were teachers), the black women’s club movement, business, and social groups. The alchemy of their gender and class status brought a distinct “racial uplift” dimension to their work. But many crossed traditional lines of gender conventions to work on antilynching campaigns; voter registration; pay equity for teachers (black teachers, three quarters of whom were women, earned 42 percent of what white teachers earned in 1940, or $558.81 compared to $1,331.88 per year); and broad legal and legislative challenges to the “separate but equal” structure of public institutions.

The book concludes with two in-depth, contrasting case studies of women who held leadership positions in local branches of the Louisiana NAACP: D.J. Dupuy of Baton Rouge and Georgia M. Johnson of Alexandria. According to Sartain, Dupuy wielded her considerable influence within conventional gender roles, while Johnson “crossed well-drawn gender lines to traverse into male definitions of public leadership and domination of civil rights debates.” Not surprisingly, Johnson’s career was more fraught with controversy. As the only woman to chair a Legal Redress Committee in an NAACP branch, she was unrelenting in her criticism of both white leaders and also of fellow branch leaders for trying to “appease white leaders.” She accused fellow officers of a “gradualist” approach to civil rights progress in the interest of maintaining their own social standing. One wonders if perhaps the contrasts Sartain draws are a bit too neat, and if the differences between these leaders were as much of personality as of politics. And in light of the two books discussed earlier, one deeply regrets that neither left us her own life story.

It is beyond the scope of Sartain’s book to do a full comparison of activism in Louisiana and others parts of the South, but he might have done more with the cultural and historical differences that make Louisiana unique, particularly the complexities of class and color lines within the black community. He does draw on the work of Adam Fairclough to show that in some important ways, progress in civil rights occurred there earlier than it did elsewhere—Louisiana State University admitted its first black graduate student in 1950, and Baton Rouge staged a massive bus boycott two years before Montgomery—and that women were the bedrock of these efforts. But as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and, most recently, the events in Jena have shown, despite such early victories, intractable racism runs deep in the state, as elsewhere.

Just yesterday, it seems, a national journal published a feature entitled “Forty Years Since Everything.” It is now, of course, fifty years since everything: fifty years since the Little Rock Nine integrated the city’s public schools; 52 years since Rosa Parks held her seat on a bus in Montgomery; 53 years since Brown vs. Board of Education. It was indeed just yesterday that a bitterly divided Supreme Court ruled in Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District No. 1 to undermine—no, to destroy—the historic victory of Brown. If one or more of the books discussed above had been required reading for the justices, those who voted to overturn Brown might not have been so quick to dismiss the decades of struggle: the petitions and court cases, the marches and vigils, the treasure, the tears, and the blood that won for us all that prize of great price.

 

Margo Culley is professor of English emerita at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where for over thirty years she taught and published on women's and ethnic literature. In the mid 1960s, she worked on school integration and voter registration in South Carolina and in the now sadly ravaged Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. In her life-after-retirement, she has travelled widely, taken rather than taught courses, made new friends, and worked to build the new Wendell Free Library in her rural hometown in Massachusetts.

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